Director: Kristof Bilsen
Words – Rhiannon Topham.
We often talk about documentaries being ‘personal’ and ‘intimate’, about their power and capacity to move us in unexpected ways. They are, after all, often based in the lived experiences of people across all walks of life – whether or not we are familiar with their personal story, the collective conscience of the communities they live in or the circumstances that unfold on screen, these people reflect something about the world around us, about the way we empathise with and treat other people. This is what MOTHER, directed by Kristof Bilsen, represents.
In Thailand, Pomm works as a caregiver at a centre for Europeans with Alzheimer’s. The relationship she has with her patient Elisabeth transcends the emotionally unattached caregiver-patient connection we picture in such clinical environments, as Pomm’s deep-seated affection for Elisabeth is rooted in the kind of maternal, familial fondness she misses in her own life. Yes, it’s Pomm’s job to care for Elisabeth. Yes, it’s her duty as her caregiver to put her to bed at night, for example, and attend to her needs. But it’s Pomm’s execution of these tasks that Bilsen illuminates with such poignancy – her nursing of Elisabeth with such loyalty and tenderness, treating her not as a victim and patient but a friend to whom she can extend her admiration through aid and relief.
Away from work, Pomm is separated from her three children; her two eldest live a four hour drive away with her mother, and her youngest even further away with her ex-partner. This is the cause of great strain for all involved, and many mothers – not just in Thailand, but globally – will relate to and sympathise with Pomm’s determination to maintain two jobs in order to provide for her children and atone for her absence. The pathos one feels for this personal turmoil is given an extra dimension when Pomm’s own footage of her time with her children is woven in, further unpeeling the idealistic veneer of motherhood as an uncomplicated or inherently perfect experience.
Pomm’s experience almost directly contrasts that of Maya’s, a Swiss woman with Alzheimer’s who is set to move to Thailand to become a patient at Pomm’s centre. Pomm herself reflects on the financial privilege her patients and their families have available to them, but she bares no resentment for this and instead respects them as human beings with a chronic neurodegenerative disease, with families who are contending with the dichotomy of keeping their loved one close by or sending them elsewhere for professional assistance to oversee their condition and administer the best possible care.
Witnessing Maya’s fugue and deteriorating comprehension of her surroundings is painful viewing, especially towards the end during a devastating Skype meeting between the home manager and Maya’s husband, Walti – Maya can no longer make sense of computers and struggles to register Walti’s virtual presence, but to him this was a successful interaction.
Set to the backdrop of such an idyllic part of the world where thousands of wanderlust-hungry travellers descend every year, MOTHER forces the viewer to question what bliss looks like to us; a luxury getaway is the typical image of Thailand, but, in this humble care centre where cultures collide, the sanguine relationships between those present, both in body and in spirit, is infinitely moving.